Chord QBD76.indd

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Chord QBD76.indd
REVIEW
Chord’s brand new QBD76 is a DAC with a
difference, says David Price, and it’s not
just the wireless Bluetooth functionality...
Radio Active
T
HI-FI WORLD
here’s not normally an awful
lot to get excited about
when reviewing a hi-fi digital to analogue convertor.
Generally they have a proprietary chipset, bought off
the shelf from the likes of Burr Brown
or Wolfson, a selection of digital inputs
on the back and maybe even switchable upsampling to make life especially
interesting. You plug it in, it sounds
good (or bad), and errm, that’s it!
This is not the case with Chord’s
new QBD76. There’s so much in
here that I suspect this magazine
will be talking about it long after
the ink has dried on the September
issue. The reason for this is two-fold.
Firstly, it has a unique bespoke DAC
chip; a development of the one used
in Chord's own superb DAC64, of
which we are huge fans. Secondly, it
introduces a completely new concept
(for hi-fi DACs) – that of wireless
Bluetooth transmission from a mobile
phone. [see TOOTH WISDOM].
The QBD76 is essentially a ‘mark
II’ version of the DAC64, doing things
that chip architecture didn’t easily
permit seven years ago at the time
of the original Chord’s introduction.
HI-FI WORLD SEPTEMBER 2008
Thanks to a new generation field
programmable gate array (FPGA)
device (the Xilinx Spartan 3) which
has no less than 1.25 million gates, a
massive amount of functionality can be
‘imprinted’ on a single chip. Custom
coded by Chord, it handles the
switching of S/PDIF inputs, all digital
S/PDIF decoding, digital Phase Locked
Loop, the RAM buffer controller, the
Watts Transient Aligned filter and the
fifth generation Pulse Array DAC. This
forms the heart of the QBD76, and is
its single most defining characteristic
because it takes control of the sound
quality away from OEM chip manufacturers and puts it in the hands of
Chord.
The changes are myriad, but
suffice to say the new 5th generation
Pulse Array DAC has had a lot of
work, particularly on the noise
shaper architecture with the aim
of reducing noise (it now has 8th
order noise shaping, and 2608 times
oversampling and digital filtering).
A new digital Phase Locked Loop
has been developed using a highly
accurate 115MHz clock. Data-related
jitter is completely removed from
the source, says Chord, and you’re
www.hi-fiworld.co.uk
left with just random master clock
jitter of less than 3pS cycle to cycle
[see MEASURED PERFORMANCE].
As before, it features a switchable
RAM buffer, which was left on for this
review.
The unit itself is about as exotic
as it is possible to make a digital to
analogue convertor look and feel. It
retains the DAC64’s 338x60x145mm
dimensions and hewn-from-solid feel
(and 7kg weight), but adds a few more
flourishes. As before, the large glass
aperture showcases the circuitry
inside (which lights up in red), but
there’s a second, smaller ‘looking glass’
showing a simple alphanumeric red
LED display. This works in conjunction
with the buttons on the top to give
source selection, RAM buffer (off,
minimum and maximum) and phase.
Round the back, along with the very
obvious Bluetooth aerial are a pair of
balanced audio outputs and a pair of
RCA phono outs, plus two coaxial and
optical digital inputs, an AES XLR in
and a USB input.
SOUND QUALITY
In short, this is the very best DAC
I’ve heard to date. As regular readers
REVIEW
TOOTH WISDOM
Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) is a subset of Bluetooth, designed to send high quality stereo or mono audio from one device to another. Although designed ostensibly for streaming audio from
a mobile phone to a wireless headset, Chord have harnessed it to work with their new QBD76 DAC
and Chordette Gem Bluetooth music player. The system works well on the QBD76, locking on to a new
Nokia A2DP-compatible phone and playing AAC files in a stable, fuss free way once the usual Bluetooth
‘handshaking’ has taken place (it initially requires you to enter a code before it recognises the Chord as
a Bluetooth device). Of course, this isn’t the primary function of Chord’s new flagship DAC – but it’s a
handy one that adds a new dimension to an already highly versatile machine. And for those specifically
interested in Bluetooth music playback, then they have the new Chordette Gem (£399), more of which
next month. The Chords already support a very wide range of mobile phones, PDAs and personal computers a - three page long list of compatible phones is supplied, including most of the latest Nokias and
Blackberrys - and I suspect this will grow in length dramatically over the coming months and years.
dynamics, detail, image precision),
this DAC simply doesn’t let the side
down rhythmically, unlike every other
16/44 digital source. It makes jazz
truly listenable on CD, which is surely
a first!
The same could be said
for classical music, a Deutsche
Grammophon disc of Vivaldi’s ‘Four
Seasons’ (The English Concert/Simon
Standage) sounding vivid with detail
able to scratch the surface. But, even
on first acquaintance, it’s obvious
that Chord’s new QBD76 is in a gang
of one at the moment – so striking
is its clear, focused and musically
articulate sound. As for its Bluetooth
functionality, laudable as this feature
may be, right now it’s something of
a sideshow. Don't let it distract you
from the fact that this is a landmark
digital device.
"this is the very best DAC I’ve
heard to date."
HI-FI WORLD
but wonderfully natural
too. The focus of the
Chord was there in full
effect, each instrument
located in the vast,
three-dimensional
recorded acoustic like
it was nailed down,
and dripping with
shimmering harmonics.
There’s still a slight
residual upper midband
hardness to CD, and
this was apparent on
violins, but it’s about
as natural as I think
I’ll ever hear ‘legacy
16bit’ get. Best of
all, it detracted from
the performance not
one jot, the whole
orchestra sounding
breathtakingly powerful
and animated – by
contrast most other
hi-fi DACs sound like
they’ve been popping
Mogadon.
CONCLUSION
There will be a lot
more discussion of
this new digital to
analogue convertor
in these pages in the
months to come, as
we’ve only just been
VERDICT
Dramatically musical yet devastatingly
revealing sound makes this unique
product the definitive digital to
analogue convertor right now.
CHORD QBD76
£3,000
Chord Electronics
+44(0)1622 721444
www.chordelectronics.co.uk
)
will know, this is pretty much what
we thought about its predecessor,
the DAC64. But that doesn’t mean
that the QBD76 is simply a lightly
‘reheated’ version of the original,
because it sounds superlative in a
markedly different way...
Importantly, it loses the original’s
distinctively warm and romantic
quality. This is mostly down to the
fact that the former was a little
rolled off in the treble, whereas the
QBD76 is not. This is its greatest
defining characteristic – a massively
focused and natural sounding top
end. To that, however, you can add
the midband and bass – because this
new DAC is like twiddling the lens
of a manual SLR camera just a touch,
and watching everything snap into
dramatic focus. On top of this, all the
lovely, unfettered, organic musicality
is still there to behold.
Although you can dissect
different aspects of the QBD76’s
performance and single them out
for particular praise, it’s the breathtaking combination of its many
strengths that makes it remarkable.
For example, Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Left to
My Own Devices’, a fairly flat and
mechanical experience on CD (but
not LP) became a totally engrossing
listen through the new Chord,
massive in scale and expressive like
nothing else digital I’ve heard. The
sheer speed of the song was stunning,
the bassline strong and physical yet
bouncing up and down like it was on
rubber springs. Above this, I found
a vast midband bubbling over with
detail in front of me. For the first
time with the CD, I could hear vocal
overdubs, the rasp of the brass and
a wondrously silky yet sharp hi-hat
sound.
Even with relatively hard and
unforgiving recordings, the new
Chord just flies. ‘There Is a Light That
Never Goes Out’ from The Smiths
wasn’t presented in as romantic a
light as the old DAC64 did, taking
me much closer to the sound of
the mixing desk, but still the music
flooded out. Morrissey’s distinctive
vocals achieved a striking, haunting
quality – almost quite ethereal
– whereas most DACs reduce them
to a nasal whine. Every strand of
the song was there for me to hear,
practically on a plate, whereas I’m
used to having to try harder to listen
for those backing strings, for example.
Rhythmically it’s a riot, shown
perfectly by the strains of Herbie
Hancock’s ‘I Have a Dream’; an
acoustic jazz number with very subtle
rhythms. Suddenly the song sounded
alive and believable, more so than
any other DAC I’ve heard. Aside from
its brilliance at all the hi-fi stuff (i.e.
FOR
- stark focus
- infectious musicality
- unfettered dynamics
- design flair
- engineering, build
AGAINST
- Bluetooth appeal?
MEASURED PERFORMANCE
Frequency response measured ruler flat
to 20kHz without visible filter influence.
The clean and stable time domain pulse
shape resulted in perfect analyser
triggering, a side issue of the filters,
but interesting. Switching our digital
analyser to 48kHz sampling moved
bandwidth out to 22kHz. The low end
limit was 3Hz.
Distortion levels were low right
through the dynamic range of CD,
especially at -60dB, where a figure
of 0.18%, seen in our analysis, was
exceptional. All the same, because
of harmonic distribution the EIAJ
Dynamic Range value was normal
enough at 110dB.
There was just about no
measurable difference between
balanced (XLR socket) and unbalanced
(phono socket) outputs, except that the
former gives double the output of the
former, a massive 5.7V in all. The XLRs
in particular are suitable for long lines.
The new QBD76 doesn’t have its
predecessor’s high frequency roll off,
but then it relies on far more advanced
digital circuitry, Chord say. The point
of the QBD, and the DAC64 before it,
is to maintain time domain waveform
shape through Watts Transient Aligned
filters and this the QBD76 did, whilst
showing far greater bandwidth than
the venerable and much admired
DAC64. NK
Distortion (%)
0dB
-6dB
-60dB
-80dB
Separation (1kHz)
Noise (IEC A)
Dynamic range
Output
FREQUENCY RESPONSE
DISTORTION
Frequency response (-1dB)
CD
3Hz - 20.1kHz
www.hi-fiworld.co.uk
SEPTEMBER 2008 HI-FI WORLD
0.0008
0.0007
0.18
4.7
125dB
-123dB
110dB
2.86/5.7V

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